ANTHROPOLOGIST MUST BE AN ENCYCLOPEDIST
Alexandra Buzhilova is a Doctor of Historical Sciences, academician of RAS and directress of MSU Museum of Anthropology.
About Napoleon soldiers’ caries, geography of syphilis and mysterious burial places on territory of Russia
- Is anthropology a story of death or life?
- Life, of course. It may seem sad that we are working with bones of people that died many years ago. We conduct a detective inquiry; reconstruct the details of person’s life, causes of death.
For example, several million years ago a big bird killed an Australopithecus baby. The bird swept baby away by clutching its head and put claws right to baby’s eyes. It is possible to reconstruct the death cause due to paleopathological analysis of its skull.
Modern technologies even allow us to say what ancient people ate. There are many man sites of Stone Age in Vologda Region. We were able to deduce that people stopped eating meat and started to eat fish. What is interesting, the ecological environment did not change there and forests were full of animals people could hunt. We can’t explain these changes now, we just record research results.
There is another interesting fact connected with nutrition. Few thousand years ago when ancient communities moved from hunting to agriculture. Proportion of plant food in human’s ration became higher. There were even records about isolated incidents of vegetarianism (mother and child) on the territory of modern Ukraine. We know that ancestors of our ancestors that were not humans yet were vegetarians. It is an interesting fact that vegetarians appeared between people who were biologically aimed at eating meat.
- Reconstruction of physical activities is one of the tasks that paleopathology completes. How can one understand what kind of physical activities the person did or name his job?
- We can record the impact of daily physical activities that muscles leave on bones. Unfortunately, we can’t reconstruct everything. We only can define occupation of people whose activities differ from common walk or run. Horse riding, for example, or drilling holes in bones or jewelry.
For a complete reconstruction of person’s activities, we need not only characterization of movement activities but also overall studies. We can gain information from archeologic data: to explore burial stock, to learn results of reconstruction of diet with the help of isotope study, to undertake laboratory studies for characterization of specific traumas and pathologies, content of microelements in bones. Only then we can make an assumption about occupation of the person.
- You often mention caries in your research. Why?
Caries indicates not only poor state of teeth but also diet, physiological status and health altogether. Hunters and foragers of Stone Age less often suffered from caries than medieval townsmen. Children of the early farmers have average showings. However, they suffered from scurvy more often, especially in Northern Europe because long winters led to a shortage of supplies, and that led to starving, deceases and early death.
Studying young Napoleon soldiers who participated in Patriotic War of 1812, we paid attention to a high percentage of caries when there was almost nothing left from the tooth. Those are consequences of stress, starving and frost. Their average age was between 18-20 years. Some were even 14-15 years old.
The Europeans had very bad teeth at the beginning of the XIX century. It was connected with obvious cold spell, when lean and cold years and long winters led to a life in permanent stress. The Europeans suffered from bad nutrition in the first place. It was reflected on growing and development of children and teenagers as the most vulnerable part of society. All that and some negative factors of the environment had a bad impact on teeth. Work with such materials gave us extraordinary experience of studying population that suffered from stress for many years.
- Did population of European Russia have the same problems?
- Our climate is traditionally colder. The Russians never laid all their hopes on harvest, so they were also hunting, fishing and foraging. Therefore, there were no serious health problems. There was not also a tradition of specialisation in agriculture. That helped to develop complex type of management. It was important to lay in a stock for a winter. We all still have this mental message: when enter forest we start looking around and search for eatable plants. However, as in Western Europe, there appear dental problems especially between people in towns. There were also regional differences. For example, people of Novgorod region suffered from caries more than citizens of Central regions
- Syphilis was another spread decease. What can it tell about a person?
Syphilis was a widespread disease in Medieval Western Europe. In Eastern Europe it was noticed primary among urban population and it was rarely spread among countryside. Syphilis is one of so-called social diseases and it tells us that there were relations between people. It also indicates migrations. Geography and chronology of syphilis are studied in the first place. Its originator has tropical nature. It proves that mankind lived in tropic latitudes from the beginning. In the Bronze Age and in following centuries the disease was fixed in certain areas and was endemic. However, it became an epidemic after America was discovered. These are details that concern scientists. We can study development mechanisms of infections in the past and nowadays while analysing development of causative agent and extension of syphilis in ancient societies. There is its own molecular genetic history for every causative agent. If we can get data about genetics of ancient syphilis, we would see bigger picture of disease development history. This disease is not completely studied. However, it is successfully cured nowadays.
- In one of your studies you supposed that Ivan the Terrible had diabetes. What made you come to such a conclusion?
- It is only a speculation. Unfortunately, I was able to study only X-ray patterns of the Tsar’s calcius and also results of scientific reports of other scientists.
I noticed that there were calcifications of bunches on his backbone. It gives us an opportunity to suppose a specific pathology. According to medical data, we know that syndrome of calcification of certain bunches is often associated with type 2 diabetes. Moreover, if you don’t cure diabetes, there will be long-healed ulcers due to violations of normal activities of angeions’ limbs. According to experts, there is increased level of quicksilver in Tsar’s calcius. It may be caused by frequent use of unctures with quicksilver. Eastern witch doctors of that time insisted on the fact that those unctures removed the inflammatory process.
Second cluster of information is connected with historic data. Daniil Prinz von Buchau, an ambassador from Holy Roman Empire, wrote about Ivan the Terrible: “He is very tall, has a strong and quite thick body”. According to this source, it turns out that the tsar grew heavy after age 45. Moreover, his character changed a lot. He had mood swings, suffered from decline of strength. Periods of aggression, that were caused by probable glucose escape, just like periods of asthenia when he and his relatives believed that he was going to die.
Put it all together, I supposed that Ivan the Terrible probably suffered from type 2 diabetes. Nevertheless, I can’t say it for sure because there are not enough proves.
- However, there always can be historic falsifications. I know about falsification of finding Ivan Susanin’s remains. How would you comment that?
- That case connecting Ivan Susanin is not a falsification. It is just a stir, made famous by journalists. Actually, that scientific report, made by anthropologist and coroner, comprised results that were got using traditional methods: gender, age and even evaluating of mtDNA. Genetic analysis showed that this individual was certainly from those places. It could be Ivan Susanin but it could be not. There are also results of historical and archeological analyses that arranged everything back to order.
I think the most important part of this story is that scientists interfered and explained everything for public.
- What historic figure’s remains would you love to study?
- When an anthropologist receives remains of a famous person, it creates certain emotional background. You understand that you don’t work with some ordinary person. However, to draw an inference working with separate people is a task of forensic medicine. It is more important for an anthropologist to work on a population scale to valuate common biological processes.
- Like mass grave in Yaroslavl dating back to Tatar-Mongol invasion?
- Yes, it was a huge and challenging project. When archeologists find mass graves, it is very important to estimate the cause of death of those people. An anthropological analysis showed that almost all of them died by violence (more than 200 people). After analyzing of archeological data, using different methods of age determination, studying plant and zoological remains, teamwork of other specialists, the picture of seizing Yaroslavl by Tatar-Mongol became full.
Written records about the assault on Yaroslavl are pretty brief. It is said that invaders came in winter by Volga (using frozen water as a road) and brought death with them. We were able to show details of that tragedy by studying remains of people and topography of the city. Invaders released hundreds of arrows; people were running in panic trying to shelter in houses and other buildings. The horsemen cut their way to city through few in numbers vigilantes and rode down the citizens. They killed everyone: men, women and children. Some citizens died due to a fire when they sheltered in a church.
All these reconstructed items clued a dramatic picture of the invasion on Yaroslavl. Use of complex methods gave an opportunity to show that early captures of Russian cities by Tatar-Mongols were connected with demonstrative genocide: nomads showed their might and severity in order to conquer the big country.
I remember having a sleepless night when we were finishing the book about this research – I imagined all that horror. I understood that I would not be able to work on that research because this tragedy impressed me very much.
- What other archaeological finds impressed you that much?
- There were impressions of a different type. For example, there was a burial of men and two children near Vladimir dating back to Stone Age (about 30000 years ago). The teenagers lie in one long grave head to head. The man is in a separate grave. There is a skull of a woman and a big stone on this grave. The archeologists found thousands of bone patches on their clothes. They had bone amulets, rings, clasp pins and other ornamentals. In children’s there were spears made of mammoth tusk, lots of stone and bone javelins and knives.
Bottoms of graves were covered with coal from fires and then red ochre. The bodies were probably coated with fat and ochre and then clothed in fur clothes, decorated with bone patches. Spears were stuck into walls of the grave. Fells were thrown over them to cover bodies from the sod.
The graves were found accidentally. It was a sand pit at that time and workers came across bones while working. Archeologists studied the findings until the late autumn came. Then they had to notch the grave out as a monolith and continue studying it in Moscow. There the scientists centimeter by centimeter worked with wooden sticks in order not to lose a single bead or a bone from that grave.
It is significant information for anthropologists because safety of such ancient artifacts is incredible. We have a whole new layer of scientific information about life, nutrition, causes of death of those people. It is none the less important information for archeologists because no grave in Europe can be compared to that in decoration of burial. We are proud that it is our country that has such important for history of paleolith findings.
- What skills does an anthropologist need to perform such researches?
- Academic department of anthropology is part of faculty of Biology in MSU. Therefore, an anthropologist in the first place is a specialist in the sphere of general biology. This means that you must have certain knowledge not only in Biology but also in Math, Physics and Chemistry. Our students study anatomy of the human on the same level as doctors do. There are obligate courses on genetics, morphology, and ecology of human and so on. There are also some humanitarian subjects like Archaeology, Social Anthropology etc. However, students also need skills of scientific analysis, systematization of fragmentary data, and performing experiments.
Anthropology is a field science. It is important to feel oneself comfortable in expeditions and to have necessary skills. Some expeditions study modern people, some, along with archeologists, study fossil remains. In the first case, you should speak carefully so as for person under study not to feel themselves pinched and abject while experiment goes. You should be ready to answer any question connected with aims of anthropological research and even themes from other fields.
Paleoanthropologists don’t need to speak with persons under study. Nevertheless, ethical protocol means that they respect the remains.
Field expeditionary life of anthropologists is conjugated with certain features. You often have to live in tents, eat by fire, live without modern conveniences. From outside it may seem great, but when you suffer from insects, heat or cold there comes another perception of the situation. As a result, not all students stay in anthropology.
There is another feature. Anthropology is called interdisciplinary science. It is true; an anthropologist must be an encyclopedist. You have to learn many sciences to estimate the semantic of burial complexes or suggest reconstruction of burial traditions. You need to be able to ‘read’ X-ray patterns and estimate results of computer tomography to make a diagnosis while studying bone remains. You must understand results of genetic analysis while analyzing varieties of ancient people. Of course, it is difficult and demands many power and time resources.
Meanwhile anthropology is divided into many specific sections connected with morphology, anatomy, ecology, and anthropogenesis.
- Do you miss expeditions?
- Yes, sometimes. I have not been in any expedition for the last 10 years due to administrative work. However, summer is still a symbol of fieldwork for me.
In expedition, the anthropologist is considered as a specialist. When there was no anthropological data, I started to search for other work: cooking something, or going into forest for mushrooms, or even worked with the soil. Those physical activities were familiar to me, but they impressed students-archeologists: “Wow, anthropologists are not kid gloves”.
- Due to technological progress, modern physicists are able to ‘catch’ micro particles, watch the quantum world and so on. Have modern technologies influenced anthropology?
- As science develops, more technologies become available for anthropologists. Earlier the computer tomography was something unique, now it is a common thing. Therefore, we enlarge our knowledge because we don’t just suggest assumptions but rest on new data.
I think, the future of anthropology is in developing technologies that will give us an opportunity to return to our previous data on a new knowledge convolution.
- Is there any anthropological approach that tells about woman’s role in history?
- There is an important biological task in anthropology that evaluates biological differences between men and women in a wide research field. Biologists even have a term ‘gender dimorphism’. We estimate men and women because they are different biologically. You can’t say who is better. Function of both genders is equally important for successful development.
It is very pleasant for me, as a woman, to state that many processes connected with development of science were carried with the help of women. We can see in history that there always was a woman near a man-pioneer: a loyal wife, or a colleague. It is she, who created comfortable conditions for a good result.
Men and women should always be together. I respect in men not only intelligence, but also gallantry. Such men point surname of their woman-colleague in the first place. Gallantry of a man shows up in many life circumstances. I think modern man must save this feature. The man is stronger and should yield woman. However, speaking scientifically, every person has their own set of skills that help him adapt for life conditions. To decrease or increase somebody’s role in these circumstances is senseless.
Agata Korovina, news agency of the Eurasian Women’s Community
Translated by Yan Zarubin